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Rehab specialists learn value of flexibility: Historic building projects require contractors who can adjust on the fly

November 7, 2005

For the ideal construction project, building owners and architects carefully develop a budget and a set of plans, then hire contractors to follow the plans to the letter, the budget to the dollar, and the schedule to the day.

But when the building is old-old enough to have been through several owners and multiple uses-throw the ideal out the window, owners and contractors say.

Yes, the budget constraints are still there. And the result-new housing, hotel or offices-is the same, too.

Everything in between, however, is up for grabs. Hiring contractors and subcontractors who understand that is key, owners say.

"Until you get into the middle of the rehab, you really don't understand everything you'll need to do," said Russ Seiler, director of finance and development at Indianapolis-based Van Rooy Properties. "You need someone who understands and designs on site."

Van Rooy has rehabbed several apartment buildings, including historic Marcy Village on 46th Street east of College Avenue and the Continental at 401 N. Meridian St. The company is now working on the Blacherne, just south of the Continental at the corner of Meridian and Vermont streets.

On its construction projects, Van Rooy acts as its own general contractor. Typically, the company hires different subcontractors depending on whether the job is a historic rehab or newer construction, Seiler said.

On new construction, a general contractor might prefer a subcontractor who takes construction plans, follows them and isn't heard from until the job is completed, Seiler said. But on rehabs, that's the last thing a general contractor wants, he said.

"You want the owner of, say, a plumbing company to actually be a part of the renovation," he said. "You are going to have to engineer as you go to some extent."

At the Blacherne, Van Rooy has hired locally based Jahnke Painting Inc. and Hoosier Contracting LLC, among other subcontractors. The $3 million rehab will create 68 apartments in the building, which had been public housing apartments.

Several contractors and subcontractors have developed specialties in rehabs, Seiler said. Usually, they are smaller companies, where the owner is often on site overseeing the work.

For older buildings, it's also important to have a subcontractor who's familiar with combining the old and the new-in the case of the plumber, for instance, someone who will reuse as much of the existing plumbing as possible-to cut down on costs, Seiler said.

Hoosier Contracting has found its niche through work from property owners like Van Rooy as well as through Hearthview Residential LLC. Hoosier Contracting President Chris Reid also serves as a principal of condominium builder Hearthview.

Through Hearthview, Hoosier Contracting has worked on rehabs of Lockerbie Terrace and 110 E. Washington St., both former office buildings, and Mill No. 9, a former factory. Currently, Hearthview is working on condos at the Indianapolis Athletic Club and is preparing to start work on an apartment building at 54th Street and College Avenue, which will eventually be converted to condos.

With several buildings in and around downtown in the midst of rehabs or slated for conversion into condos, firms who know the ins and outs of historic rehab are keeping busy, owners said.

Dean Illingworth, principal and cofounder of locally based Schmidt Associates architects, said he has seen waves of renovation during the firm's 29 years in business.

Most renovations of historic buildings rely on tax credits to succeed, so the availability of those credits-such as historic credits from the National Park Service and federal housing tax credits-plays a major factor in whether renovation projects can be feasible.

Schmidt has worked on several over the years, from the restoration of Abraham Lincoln's burial vault in Springfield, Ill., to the renovation of several county courthouses around Indiana.

Closer to home, Schmidt's downtown projects have included renovations to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, the Davlan Building on Massachusetts Avenue, and its own headquarters building at 320 E. Vermont St.

The firm is now working on renovations to the Barton House at Michigan and Delaware streets, being carried out by locally based Brandt Construction Co. When it opens next summer, the Barton House will provide 29 affordable-housing apartments for the Indiana division of the Salvation Army, plus meeting spaces, training rooms and a domestic violence shelter for 15 to 20 people.

The Barton House is a typical illustration of the architect's role in a historic project, in that such projects usually require research, investigation and collaboration with the owner on what can and should be saved and what needs to make way for modern needs, Illingworth said.

For instance, the exterior of the Barton House had been changed significantly over the years, as the building housed first apartments, then a hotel, then a nursing home.

It was also originally three separate buildings, so the owner and Schmidt decided to renovate it to its 1914 appearance, when the three buildings were combined, Illingworth said.

And as with most renovation projects, something had to make way because of the budget. At the Barton House, for instance, rooftop finials won't be replaced partly because of the money spent to reinstall previously removed bay windows, a feature that will bump up the square footage of the apartment units inside, Illingworth said.
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